Alistair Rooms, Senior Community Organiser with Citizens UK, Newham Citizens (Part of TELCO)
I have worked closely with Shpresa for 4 years as their Community Organiser, supporting their members to have an active role in public life on the issues that matter to them. I have worked with dozens of their members to have a role in campaign teams, on health inequalities, housing and youth safety. Their members have worked through these campaigns as people on the sharp end of policy decisions to be in the room with decision makers. I have worked closely with everyone from the senior leaders to some of the newest members, here are a few reflections on working with Shpresa.
Shpresa means Hope in Albanian. Almost every charity who is named after a virtue fails to practice what they claim to, but Shpresa hits the mark. Hope is often either viewed as an unhelpfully wild ambition which will never take place, ‘a treasure of the foolish’ or as a useful frame to give people a view of the future but without offering any way to get there. But the kind of Hope Shpresa offer is a realistic one, for many people Shpresa means the light at the end of the tunnel, a map to get out and someone kind to walk alongside them. Shpresa focus on showing people that they have the strength needed to push the extra mile.
Here’s what Rebecca Solnit writes about Hope in her book, Hope in the Dark:
“To hope is to gamble. It is to bet on the future, on your desires, on the possibility that an open heart and uncertainty is better than the gloom and safety. To hope is dangerous and yet it is the opposite of fear, for to live is to risk. I say this because hope is not like a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. I say it because hope is an axe you break down doors within an emergency; because hope should shove you out of the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth’s treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal. Hope just means another world might be possible, not promised, not guaranteed.”
That’s the kind of Hope that Shpresa offers, a hope that is an axe that breaks down doors in an emergency. A kind of hope which does not promise the big challenges will go away but that says instead Shpresa will face them alongside the person in need, that together the challenges can be tackled.
The UK’s hostile environment and immigration system is felt in full force by the Albanian community who Shpresa work with. I have seen how the myths and stereotypes around the Albanian community in the UK show up in the tough experiences that their community faces. Whether it’s instances of everyday racism or prejudice which excludes a child from school or whether it’s navigating the immigration system as a child refugee in care or a pregnant mother whose pain isn’t taken seriously by her doctor, the injustices the community faces are built into their everyday experience. It’s these challenges that Shpresa offers the antidote of hope to.
But what is it that Shpresa does to offer Hope to people?
Shpresa have taken a few of the principles of community organising and embedded them into their organisation in order to build hope in their members.
They put people before programmes- The starting point for what feels different about Shpresa is that they put people above programmes and their members’ needs before hitting funding targets. They put their members’ dreams before their own organisational goals. In practice this starts with calling their members, members not ‘service users’ or ‘clients’ or beneficiaries’. It looks like building a learning journey curated for the members to remove what’s holding them back and supporting them to achieve their own goals.
They work ‘with’ not ‘to’- Shpresa don’t see themselves as a service provider that ‘do to’ people but as an organisation who want to take people on a ‘learning journey’ and work, ‘with them’. When people first meet Shpresa they get invited to join a group of their peers, whether it’s young people or mothers and meet people to grow together to try new things. A staff member will sit down with that person, find out their goals, their dreams and plan a route for them to get there.
People are leaders – The new members are invited to attend workshops and training related to their interests. If they have leadership potential in the training or workshops, they are given small responsibilities in the group and slowly -slowly, as they demonstrate more potential, they get more responsibility. This model has meant so many of the volunteers who joined the organisation have become staff. This idea is built around the potential people already have and teaches them that they have the answers.
Leadership Development is Everyday – This model allows development to take place in the everyday, it takes people, their dreams and their goals seriously and puts them before targets. It teaches people that they matter and that the hope that the future will be better starts with themselves and their own skills.
All of these principles teach Shpresa members that the things they hope to achieve are within them, not given to them by a or through charity. That the hope they are looking for desperately is inside them. That it is their own leadership and hope for their future that will be their strength, that people can find hope within themselves to build a better life.
I have trained and worked with young leaders who have left gangs because of the Shpresa youth club, who went from a future life of crime to a life where they are invested in and grow and develop, secured their status and now have the right to work legally.
I’ve sat down with mothers who were alone with their children in the middle of a mental health crisis in a new country. I have seen as life is restored in their eyes through the community they build at Shpresa, as they begin to see themselves as leaders.
Shpresa teach people that they don’t have to have the right immigration status to be valued or to build their own future. That no matter who you are you can develop and grow into the person you want to be.
The immigration system and racism and prejudice the Albanian Community faces can make being Albanian in the UK right now a tough and dark place to be, but inside the darkness of the UK’s hostile environment, Shpresa provides genuine and realistic Hope.
Shpresa have been involved in organising with Citizens Uk long before I joined the Community Organising Charity Citizens UK. They have been fighting and winning campaigns on, the Albanian Language becoming a GCSE, Community Land Trusts, Amnesty for their members in the UK, The Lunar House Inquiry, the Ending of the detention of children for immigration purposes, the Living Wage Campaign, Mental Health campaigns and campaigns for a safer East London.